The nation of Finland has provided two of the most intriguing prospects in the Carolina system, and the Checkers got to check them both out firsthand last season.
Aleksi Saarela and Janne Kuokkanen each got to enjoy a taste of the North American pro game late in the year after the conclusion of their respective campaigns, though for varying lengths of time.
Saarela, acquired from the New York Rangers as a part of the deadline deal that sent Eric Staal to the Empire State, jumped on board in late March after his Finnish club, Lukko Rauma, failed to make the SM-Liiga playoffs. Already an established scorer in his homeland, the 20-year-old showed he was the real deal by putting up seven points in his first five games, including lighting the lamp in four of those.
“He came in and had a tremendous start,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson.
One of the biggest adjustments for European players making the jump to North America is playing on a much smaller ice surface than is used internationally. For Saarela, however, this change seemed to suit his game in a positive way.
“Right away when I got here I felt like I play better on a small rink,” said Saarela. “There’s not a lot of room so you have to make your plays and decisions faster and I feel like I’ve tried to do that for my whole career. It’s so much bigger of a rink in Finland. So when I got here I felt like that’s how it’s supposed to go.”
Saarela’s red-hot introduction to the continent caught eyes across the league, as the forward earned himself AHL Player of the Week honors in his first week of play. Unfortunately, an injury derailed the momentum he had built up. Saarela was sidelined for the final two critical games of the regular season, but in the end taking care of his health came first, both to him and the team.
“It’s a huge risk if you come back too early and something happens again,” he said. “The doctors here are so careful about injuries so you’re not able to play before you’re 100 percent OK.”
Saarela returned to the lineup for the postseason, which in and of itself was an eye-opening experience (“It’s so much different than the regular season”), but an upper body injury in the decisive Game 5 forced the young Finn to the locker room for the remainder of the contest, though he now appears to be fine.
“I feel good,” said Saarela. “I actually got an MRI a couple of hours ago so we’ll see after that what happens. But I think everything is ok. I’m ready for the summer.”
Joining Saarela late was his fellow countryman Kuokkanen, who was added to the team’s playoff roster after his London Knights were eliminated from the OHL playoffs.
Unlike Saarela, however, the 18-year-old Kuokkanen spent the majority of his time with the team simply observing the pro game, something that was helpful in its own right.
“It was good,” said Kuokkanen of his time in Charlotte. “I learned a lot of things from the guys and I’m really happy that I came here.”
The forward, selected in the second round of last year’s NHL Draft, was able to make his pro debut with the Checkers, suiting up for Game 3 in Chicago. While Kuokkanen was held off the scoresheet, he certainly got a feel for what comes with the pro game.
“I felt pretty good,” said Kuokkanen of his debut. “The speed was a lot faster than the OHL but I think I did well.”
Unlike other European-born players, Kuokkanen wasn’t a stranger to the smaller ice surface, having made the decision along with the Hurricanes to move his development from his home country of Finland to the OHL for this season, something that could pay huge dividends in his progress.
“It was a big move to come here and play in North America, especially on the small rinks,” said Kuokkanen. “I think it helped me a lot to play here.”
Also aiding in the transition was having a fellow Finn newcomer in Saarela on the club.
“He had been here already for a month so he helped me out a lot with things,” said Kuokkanen.
With their trial runs in the books, the question now is where will the duo go from here? Well, according to them, fans should prepare to see both skaters draped in red sweaters next season.
“I think I’m turning pro next year,” said Kuokkanen, who would be eligible as a European-born skater to play in the AHL despite being younger than 20.
“I’m going to be here in North America for sure next year,” said Saarela. “I just have to work hard to make the NHL right away. That’s my goal and that’s how I’m going to practice this offseason.”
If what they showed in spurts this season is any indication of what Kuokkanen and Saarela can bring to the table, next year should be a treat.
“They’re both high-skill players,” said Samuelsson. “We anticipate them being either with us or with the Hurricanes next year.”